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Live at the Pulitzer: 20 Years of Art and Music

By Jen Roberts and Justino Gordón-LeChevalié


In St. Louis’ bustling cultural landscape, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s Tadao Ando-designed building is an architectural marvel—and for two decades, it has also served as a space where music mingles with visual art. Through a visionary collaboration, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Live at the Pulitzer converges aural and visual storytelling, uniquely positioning St. Louis as a vital hub for music of today.


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The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra: Live at the Pulitzer concerts take place in front of Ellsworth Kelly's Blue Black.

This season, the Live at the Pulitzer celebrates 20 years of presenting bold and adventurous music.


The story of how the Pulitzer’s galleries transformed into a crossroads for music began in 2004, when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra married its rich musical legacy with the perspective of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. The driving force of this union was former SLSO Music Director David Robertson, whose ambitious vision quickly bore fruit.


"This is our longest standing collaboration,” recalls Kristin Fleischmann Brewer, the Pulitzer's deputy director of public engagement. “It’s such a unique program, not just in St. Louis but across the country.”


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Principal Timpanist Shannon Wood plucks a guitar during a Live at the Pulitzer performance. Concerts often have unusual instrumentations or employed unique techniques.

This declaration doesn't just signal the program's endurance, but its transformative impact. Live at the Pulitzer concerts transcend boundaries, redefining the way audiences experience both music and art, shifting perspectives locally about music created now.


Enter Christopher Stark. The St. Louis-based composer, and curator of the 23/24 season's concerts, is emblematic of the series' mission: to juxtapose tradition with innovation.


"I feel like I’m coming at this program with a more composerly viewpoint," Stark, an Associate Professor of Composition at Washington University in St. Louis, said. He brings to the table not only his expertise but his personal connections within the tight-knit new music community.


There is a core philosophy to the Live at the Pulitzer that particularly sets it apart from other concert series. Rather than letting music and art run on parallel tracks, the series intertwines these realms. Violinists set against an electronic backdrop, percussionists using flowerpots for drums, or flutists evoking nature by mimicking birdcalls amid the Pulitzer’s urban garden are just a few examples of the series’ experiential identity.


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Violinist Xiaoxiao Qiang performs amongst the art on display, a key component of the Live at the Pulitzer series.

Stark, in curating this season’s concerts, collaborated with the museum’s curators to ensure the chamber music chosen connects with the art on display. Such harmony elevates an evening at the Pulitzer from traditional performance to a multi-sensory experience. Stark's vision is clear when he considers the union of art and music in this space, describing it as a simultaneous invitation for introspection and exploration.


“The connection might not be totally obvious to the audience,” Stark admits, while providing an example. “I associate major and minor chords with primary colors, and a chord that is denser and more complicated, I might associate with a more complicated color arc.”


Some SLSO musicians are stalwart participants in the series, like Principal Keyboard Peter Henderson. Over many years, Henderson has seen Live at the Pulitzer’s evolution, often encountering musical pieces that stretch conventional thinking. One vivid memory involves directly harnessing the unconventional to perform a piece: “I once played a work that involved placing screws and nuts and bolts between the piano strings to modify the sound.”


Yet, Henderson underscores that these innovative departures connect with the culture and times, ensuring that the experimental remains relatable.


The Pulitzer Arts Foundation creates an ambiance that amplifies every musical note. Henderson succinctly captures this, praising the "extraordinarily clear" acoustics that bring an honesty to every performance.


Beyond the melodies and masterpieces, what anchors Live at the Pulitzer is its deeply human touch. Fleischmann Brewer's cherished moments aren't defined by composers or iconic art pieces but by the raw, emotional experiences of the attendees.


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Live at the Pulitzer audiences are often asked to consider the music as a relationship with the space and with other art.

“It brings me an incredible amount of joy to watch people be moved by the music that is performed,” she said.


In its 20th year, Live at the Pulitzer isn't just a celebration of two decades of musical triumphs, it's an ode to collaboration—more than 70 composers have had their works performed in dozens of concerts, from the well-established like John Adams and Pierre Boulez, to those who have never had a piece performed in St. Louis. It’s an invitation for audiences to engage with the merging of music and visual art—and to experience the here and now of the orchestral music art form.

 

Jen Roberts is a freelance writer. Justino Gordón-LeChevalié is the SLSO's Communications and Publications Coordinator.

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